Interview: Rehman Sobhan
'The Liberation War still inspires me to dream'
Rehman Sobhan is an economist, an academic and the founder of Bangladesh's influential think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD). Born in 1935, he took active part by the side of Bangabandhu in the movement for Bangladesh's independence even before the Liberation War. During the Liberation War he worked to mobilise world opinion. He was a member of Bangladesh's first planning commission. He was one of the main advisors to the interim government formed after the fall of General Ershad's autocratic rule in 1990.
On the occasion of the golden jubilee of Bangladesh's independence, in an interview with Prothom Alo's managing editor Sajjad Sharif, he shared memories of the 1971 Liberation War the days immediately before the war. He recalls what sort of state we wanted through the Liberation War. He speaks of our responsibility to attain that goal.
In the sixties, what made you so interested in the economic disparity between East and West Pakistan?
Professor Kabir Chowdhury would work for the Bureau of Nation Reconstruction or BNR at the time. In 1959 he approached me to write a chapter on East Pakistan's economy for the BNR journal. The publication's objective, probably, was to highlight the achievements of Ayub Khan's rule. In carrying out research for the article, I found quite significant evidence of the economic disparities between East and West Pakistan. My earlier discussions with Nurul Islam of Dhaka University's department of economics and Professor Abdur Razzak and other colleagues had already given me an idea on the issue. The writing appeared in the BNR journal. It gave a detailed picture of the disparity in economic development between East and West Pakistan. Naturally the Pakistan government was not pleased at all. At their directives, my writing was withdrawn, replaced with a positive article related to the economy, written by Professor Abdullah Faruq, and the journal was printed anew.
After that I began writing regularly on this issue of disparity. I would write articles in various newspapers, I would speak about the issue at meetings and discussions. When I read my paper on the two economies at a national conference in Lahore in 1961, it gained huge coverage. In Dhaka, Pakistan Observer published my entire paper.
Did you think that your study would just remain in the academic spheres? Or did you sense that it would have an influence on the political process and the mass movement?
My experience with BNR and the reaction to my further writings in the newspapers, made me more aware about the political impact of this disparity. From my student days at Cambridge University and also later as a teacher at Dhaka University, I had always been eager about influencing public and political opinion. In both my research writings and in my popular writings, I would regularly include policy-related issues of political economy. I have done so all my life and still do so -- from 25 years old to now, 85 years old.
Your research and observations brought you into proximity with Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and you even got involved in the movement at that time. Can you tell us about this?
Bangabandhu and the other politicians who were fighting for the rights of the Bengalis at the time, were keeping an eye on all the debates and discussions centering my writings and my statements in the newspapers. During the martial law rule from 1958 to 1962, politicians did not have the right to say anything publicly. So it was the intellectuals, on behalf of the people, who presented the economic problems, particular that of disparity. During martial law, most of the intellectuals were unwilling to speak publicly or write in the newspapers. There were just a handful of us at the time who would speak and write, and that is why we got a lot of coverage. I was just a 26-year-old lecturer at Dhaka University at the time. Bangabandhu wanted to understand better the economic problems. He called me when Awami League's manifesto was being drawn up for the 1964 elections. I helped in writing Bangabandhu's speech which challenged the claims of economic achievements being made in the election campaign of Ayub Khan's government.
Did your study influence the mass movement in any way?
My work perhaps didn't have a direct influence on the mass movement, but our views regarding the economic disparity between the two wings of the country did play a role in the formulation of the six-point demand. Also, Bangabandhu and the other leaders used these views in their political speeches to stir the people for a mass uprising. In that sense, my work had an indirect influence. During the mass uprising in the sixties, the students of Dhaka University were also inspired by our thinking.
In rather extraordinary circumstances, academic exercise and practical politics merged. Bangabandhu managed to merge the two in an astonishing manner. You then got involved in the freedom movement of East Bengal. What did you find within Sheikh Mujib that you gave you the confidence to join such a precarious political situation?
In my first political meetings with Bangabandhu I realised that here is a leader who can reach the people. So I thought, if we want to bring about tangible political and economic change to East Pakistan, he will be an important person in that movement. Bangabandhu noticed us too and was eager to listen to us. What could be more inspiring to an intellectual working on the various problems of political economy than if an important politician takes interest? But it was dangerous during the Ayub-Monem rule for intellectuals to come in touch with politicians of the opposition. I was ready to take the risk. That is why on 27 March 1971 the Pakistani army came to my house with an arrest warrant. Luckily I was not at home at the time. In the next nine months I worked to mobilise public opinion in favour of an independent Bangladesh.
What was the outcome of you and persons of your intellectual weight joining the movement?
We gained a lot. We emerged from the academic world of being mere spectators and gained the strength to be part of the life and death struggle. Then again, the front liner leaders of the movement managed to get expert input from us when they presented their alternative policies to the people. My lucidity in writing, ability to debate in English and my good command over English was used to challenge the Pakistanis.
You have assisted Sheikh Mujib from the back and by his side, before the seventies and afterwards and also during the Liberation War. You saw the changes in historic landscape up close. Political conditions were being generated with the eager participation of people all around. As an academic, what did you see, what did you learn?
The election campaign of 1971 was exceptional. It was because of that election that politicians like Bangabandhu could stand before the people for the first time since 1954. I accompanied Bangabandhu to several public rallies. He touched the hearts of the people, he was more than just a politician to them, he was an icon. It was a very special experience to stand by his side and witness all this. My responsibility was to keep any eye to ensure that the message of Bengali nationalism in 1971, through the six-point demand, reached every doorstep, even in the most remote villages.
It was not just in the December 1970 election, but in March 1971 too when Bangabandhu challenged the Pakistan army dominance, that the people lent him full support. The historic non-cooperation movement won the support of people of all classes. This support gave the Bengali armed forces and the general people the strength to rise up against the Pakistan army spontaneously after 25 March 1971. These historical events led me to conclude that the unequal social system centered on the elite class that gave shape to Pakistan's development, must never be allowed to take root in independent Bangladesh. Like Bangabandhu and others taking part in the struggle for independence, I too believed that we must establish a society based on justice and equality.
Then the Liberation War arrived. The world powers were divided. Bangabandhu was incarcerated. The leaders had differing views. Yet, despite everything, the Liberation War met with resounding success. What are the major reasons that led to this success?
The main reason behind our success in the Liberation War was that it was fought in the name of an undisputed leader, Bangabandhu, even though he was in jail in Pakistan at the time. Awami League had its landslide victory in the election. By 26 March 1971, Bangabandhu had become a renowned personality worldwide. That is why our war gained international visibility and credibility. Expatriate Bangladeshis all over the world took up the cause of mobilising international recognition for Bangladesh as an independent sovereign state. The diaspora effectively delivered the news of the independence struggle to various political spectrum, communities and the media. That is how we could drum up a campaign in the US against the Nixon government's support for the Yahya government. The US funding and arms for Yahya shrunk. As an emissary for the Mujibnagar government's economic operations, I was involved in such campaigns. We endeavoured to prevent the Pakistani Aid Consortium from providing fresh assistance to Pakistan. Despite pressure from the US, we were successful. Under the World Bank leadership, the Pakistan aid agencies from March 1971 till December, held up aid and threw the Yahya government into a quandary.
What has the Liberation War given us?
National freedom gave us the independence to think and take decisions on our own accord, no matter whether the decisions were right or wrong. For the first time in history we emerged out from under the dominations of the ruler like Britain and then Pakistan and our people managed to generate a spirit of industrial entrepreneurship. The domination of British and non-Bengali powerful businessmen on our economy came to an end. This meaningful chang was noticeable in post-independence Bangladesh. In recent years, particularly, small farmers, women workers, micro-credit beneficiaries, migrant workers, garment exporters, technology entrepreneurs, NGO founders like Fazle Hasan Abed or Muhammad Yunus, came into focus. Despite certain negative aspects within all this, we managed to discard the beggar's basket and ascend to being a promising economy. If we can improve the quality of our governance, then the sky will be the limit for us.
The ideals that the rest of the world inherited as a part of civilisation -- democracy, non-communalism, equity, etc. -- we had to win through bloodshed. Does this place an extra liability upon us as a nation?
We have a blood debt to the people who stood in the frontlines and fought the Liberation War, who lost their lives and worldly property. Those at the helm are grabbing power and wealth, the economic disparity is widening and this indicates that we have not paid our blood debt as yet.
We use the term 'Spirit of the Liberation War' in various ways. How would you explain it?
The spirit of the liberation war is encompassed entirely in the pillars of the constitution -- democracy, nationalism, secularism and socialism.
Bangladesh was born with a multitude of dreams. As an independent country, we formed a state and had the opportunity to run it. How far, broadly speaking, have we managed to be successful in doing so?
Our economy is diversifying and flourishing, exports are growing satisfactorily, our reserves are good and our economic infrastructure has grown strong. Padma Bridge is evidence of this. Poverty has decreased and the quality of education and healthcare has improved.
But what is yet to come true is keeping Bangabandhu's dream alive with full respect to the spirit of the liberation war. Our democratic journey has been disrupted time and again and sometimes even takes a reverse turn. Compared to other South Asian countries, we have maintained secularism well, but we still have not been able to ensure a feeling of equality in the minds of the minority community in the country. We have proven our nationalist spirit and we no longer are stretching out for foreign grants or advice. But unfortunately we have moved far away from our pledge to establish a society free of discrimination. The wealthy have devoured the country's economy and politics is now run on money and power. It is becoming more and more difficult to speak up against such injustice in the face of these burgeoning powers of the state and our courts are gradually growing weaker in protecting citizens' rights.
Even after independence, there had been a bond between politics and intellect. But over the past 50 years, gradually the distance between the two has not only widened, but the bond has snapped. Some these confront each other. Does power want intellect to bow down to it?
There is no reason for intellectual pursuit and power not to be able to coexist in an active democracy. This message, born in the centre of enlightenment in the West, is internalised in our constitution too. But when power is misused to repress intellect that searches and expresses the truth, then problems begin. The social order in which intellectual pursuit is shackled, education standards fall and semi educated people can easily fall prey to the words of the cunning leaders. Perhaps it was during the term of President Trump in the US that the biggest example emerged of such a society where lies provided political clout to those in power. But we have seen the same near our own home and in our own experience too.
2021 was the golden jubilee of our independence. How can we use this time in a meaningful manner? What should our national agenda be?
We should strengthen our achievements. We should renew our vows to realise Bangabandhu's dreams and uphold the spirit of the Liberation War.
Times change and we face new challenges ahead. Future brings new interpretations of national memories and the people's historic experiences. What new significance of the Liberation War do you see in present times?
The main idea of the Liberation War was to restore people's democratic rights and to empower the people of the country, particularly the working class, with a pledge for a political order of economic and social justice. Half a century has passed, but our thoughts for a just society remain unfulfilled.
You have lived a long life. What role has the Liberation War played in your life?
The Liberation War was a turning point in my life. After campaigning for Bangladesh for nine months, when I arrived at the Dhaka airport, there are no words to describe the contentment that I felt. Being a citizen of independent Bangladesh gave me a sense of pride and dignity. After all, I played a tiny role too in establishing this country. The Liberation War inspired me. Even at the age of 85, it still inspires me to dream about establishing a just society for which we struggled, for which so many people sacrificed their lives.
Source: 'Tomake Pawar Jonno He Swadhinata', a magazine edited by Anisul Hoque and published by Prothom Alo on the occasion of the golden jubilee of independence, 2021